There are friendships and friendships. With this in mind we began our 2014 Christmas letter with these words: “‘There comes a point in your life when you realise who really matters, who never did, and who always will’. How true that is. Sadly over the years there have been friends who have come and gone. However, we are grateful for your friendship, and it precisely because we value this friendship that Christmas letters are important to us. For all their faults, Christmas letters enable us to keep in touch.” Friendship is there for the long haul.
My mind goes to Proverbs 18,24: “Some friends play at friendship, but a true friend sticks closer than one’s nearest kin” (NRSV) or in the GNB version: Some friendships do not last, but some friends are more loyal than brothers”
Recently my attention was drawn to a wonderful description of friendship, false and true, to be found in Sirach (otherwise known as ‘The Widsom of Jesus Son of Sirach’ or ‘Ecclesiasticus’), one of the books of the Apocrypha.
Pleasant speech multiplies friends, and a gracious tongue multiplies courtesies. M Let those who are friendly with you be many, but let your advisers be one in a thousand. When you gain friends, gain them through testing and do not trust them hastily.
For there are friends who are such when it suits them, but they will not stand by you in time of trouble. And there are friends who change into enemies, and tell of the quarrel to your disgrace. And there are friends who sit at your table, but they will they will not stand by you in time of trouble. When you are prosperous, they become your second self, and lord it over your servants; but if you are brought low, they turn against you, and hide themselves from you. Keep away from your enemies and be on guard with your friends.
Faithful friends are a sturdy shelter: whoever finds one has found a treasure. Faithful friends are beyond price; no amount can balance their worth. Faithful friends are life-saving medicine; and those who fear the Lord will find them. Those who fear the Lord direct their friendship aright, for as they are, so are their neighbours too. (Sirach 6.5-17)
True friendship is about loyalty, about standing by a friend, whatever. It is about being there for one another, however inconvenient it may be. As Marlene Dietrich put it: “It’s the friends you can call up at 4 a.m. that matter”. Friendship does not mean that we will always agree with one another – indeed, friendships are often the richer precisely because of disagreement. In the words of Prov 27.17: “Iron sharpens iron, and one person sharpens the wits of one another” – or in the paraphrase of the New Living Translation: “As iron sharpens iron, so a friend sharpens a friend”. Nor does friendship mean that we will be blind to one another’s faults – but a true friend does not advertise the faults of the other.
What a difference a friend makes – especially in times of trouble. In the words of CH Spurgeon: “Friendship is one of the sweetest joys of life. Many might have failed beneath the bitterness of their trial had they not found a friend”. Or to quote the American Dutch Jesuit, Henri Nouwen:
When we honestly ask ourselves which person in our lives mean the most to us, we often find that it is those who, instead of giving advice, solutions, or cures, have chosen rather to share our pain and touch our wounds with a warm and tender hand. The friend who can be silent with us in a moment of despair or confusion, who can stay with us in an hour of grief and bereavement, who can tolerate not knowing, not curing, not healing and face with us the reality of our powerlessness, that is a friend who cares.